Croagh Patrick

18 Aug 2014

Reek Sunday - Sunday 27th July, 2014 - A Probies Perspective

“It’ll be a real eye opener” they said…Well, I have never seen anything that could have prepared me for what I saw on a cold dark morning on the west coast of Ireland. 

Normally shrouded in mist and blasted by the Atlantic, Ireland’s “holy mountain”, Croagh Patrick isn’t a pretty thing to look at nor is it a particularly pleasant climb, but that wasn’t going to stop 20,000 people pilgrimage up it from midnight on Sunday 27th July, 2014. 

In attendance we had three of the ‘CVSRT Probies’ intake; Sophie Keeler, Will Gibson and myself (Bob Keeler) accompanied by our CVSRT Training Officers and mentors.

Our weekend began on Friday morning with a 4am start ready for a flight to Knock (about an hour outside Westport).  This was to be a ‘training weekend’ and had described by Al Day as “real mountain rescue”.

 By 12pm we were at the foot of Croagh Patrick, an unseasonably hot 28º degree day and not a breath of wind.  The climb was far tougher than I think any of us were expecting and really helped to put into perspective what we were likely to face on the Sunday.  From the top it became apparent why so many had chosen to ascend.  The view on a clear day is magnificent.  Clew Bay stretched out into the Atlantic, dotted with 365 islands, one for every day of the year.  Already at this point there were probably a thousand people on the mountain, some singing, and some reciting the Bible, others clearly suffering in the heat but everyone determined to reach the top. 

On Friday evening, we met up with the Dublin and Wicklow Mountain Rescue Team (DWMRT) as we were going to be part of their team on the Sunday.  Recently DWMRT had been to Calderdale to help CVSRT provide safety cover for Tour de France Grand Départ weekend, so there were many familiar faces.  We had a great evening in the balmy summer heat enjoying Irish hospitality at its best. 

The next morning, feeling fresh as a daisy, we set off to the Mweelrea Horseshoe for some steep ground stretcher exercises to prepare us for scenarios we were likely to face the next day.  Immediately I was struck by how slick the Dublin and Wicklow MRT are.  Having only met them before in a social capacity their professionalism and teamwork on the hill was inspiring.

We got stuck straight into packaging an exercise casualty with a lower leg fracture.  Some of the equipment was unfamiliar but our previous training had put us in good stead and with a bit of guidance we raised and lowered the twin wheel MacInnes confidently over the steep terrain.  Having only been training since February and on the ‘callout’ list for a matter of weeks, I think it was fair to say that despite our inexperience, we were happy with what we knew.  At that point we had no way of knowing how useful those steep terrain sessions were going to be. 

 The Saturday evening was spent with DWMRT, talking about gear and past adventures.  It felt like we had known them for years and not just two days. 

2:00am - Reek Sunday

After a brief and fitful nights sleep we packed and made ready to leave the hostel.  The night was still warm and the previously sleepy towns’ streets were crowded with drinkers leaving clubs and bars.  The Irish countryside was pitch black as we left Westport and headed towards the Mayo MRT base.  Already in the distance it was possible to make out the glinting of head torches snaking their way up the mountain path.  This felt more like an alpine ascent than any rescue work I had ever experienced. 

The base had a friendly but slightly tense atmosphere.  Every MR team from all over Ireland was represented here.  That was the point at which I felt a little out of my depth.  I packed and repacked my bag several times trying to find the right balance of layers while we waited in the cool pre-dawn breeze to be assigned to our pitch on the mountain. 

Eventually after a bowl of stew and coffee courtesy of the Civil Defence, we were briefed and tasked to pair up with Irish Cave Rescue to make a fell party on our own.  Any nerves about ego’s or our lack of experience were immediately dispelled by the warm welcome the cavers gave us.  CVSRT Probie Will is a paramedic so became 2nd medic.  Sophie volunteered to run the communications using both VHF and a TETRA system (which was being trialed for the first time on the Reek).  Having previously been trained on the Airwave System, Sophie was confident with the handset.  I didn’t have a specific role but was happy to do as I was told. 

Over the next hour we bounced, dragged and hauled the fat wheeled stretcher laden with all the gear up to the second highest point on the mountain.  We took the call sign DW2, gathered our kit just off the path, wrapped ourselves up in as many warm clothes as we could find and waited. 

It wasn’t just the thousands of people, or the adversity of what they were going up against.  It was the diversity of the hoards of revelers.  We saw everyone from people who were obviously experienced and prepared for the arduous task of climbing the Reek, to those who literally left a night club and wandered up in their heels.  

I tried hard to find an analogy to accurately describe being on the mountain that day.  The first thing that you notice is the sound, virtually the only thing you’ll hear apart from the panting of the climbers, is the scree slope shifting and the occasional clatter as football sized lumps of angular quartzite bounce down the path. 

There was a post apocalyptic feel to being up there in the hazy dawn light as wide eyed, exhausted pilgrims emerge out of the mist, heads bowed, scrambling slowly out of sight into the cloud above.  Those first few hours felt like the early morning of a festival after the music goes off and everyone has to crawl back to find their tent.    

Our shift passed largely without incident until we informed by a climber that someone nearby felt nauseous and was sat by the side of the path.  The next hour was to be amongst the most thrilling time that I have experienced on a mountain.

A small group was sent up to assess the situation.  We had already seen a few incidents that morning which required no further assistance so the remainder of the team waited with the stretcher for more information.  A minute or so later the call was received to bring the gear up to the casualty.  By the time we got there, Sophie had called for the Helicopter and we were on our first proper job. 

The casualty was complaining of chest pains, which was moving into his left shoulder.  He was given Oxygen and Aspirin while the Cas Card was filled in and the stretcher prepared for the move down the mountain.  Another team, lower down the mountain dispatched a defibrillator to our position and before too long we were ready to go. 

Suddenly the steep ground training from the previous day kicked in.  With the Irish Army helicopter thudding above us we carefully descended the steep and jagged path out of the cloud.  The point we were aiming for was a relatively flat section, about half way up the mountain, where the casualty was to be winched up and taken to hospital.

I have been lucky enough to work with the Yorkshire Air Ambulance on a few occasions but when the winchman was lowered down from the huge green Agusta Westland AW139, I felt like I was in a film.  He walked up to the casualty site and shouted to me to get the crowd back.  That was the last I saw of the helicopter and the casualty.  From that point I was crowd control, desperately trying to usher the stream of pilgrims away until the percussive thump of the rotor blades faded away and the downdraft eased back to a sea breeze.

The rest of our shift was spent negotiating the crowded path back down the mountain. We had lost our vacuum mattress and ‘cas bag’ to the helicopter crew, so we needed to replenish our gear first before being much use on the mountain.  Seemingly, it had been a quiet morning with only three casualties reported, of which ‘ours’ was the most serious.  We were still buzzing from the excitement when we got back to Mayo MRT base in time for another bowl of stew and the best vegetarian quiche Sophie had ever tasted!!

Needless to say we all learnt a lot that weekend but also gained confidence in the things we do know.  I think we did CVSRT and ourselves proud.  The compliments we received from the other team members and the helicopter crew at the Mayo base energised our tired and aching bodies for the journey home.      

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